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Book Review: Seeing With New Eyes by David Powlison

Since I posted a book review on Jay Adams’ book Competent to Counsel entitled Psychology is the Devil: A Critique of Jay Adams’ Counseling Paradigm, it has been the most viewed post here at  T h e o • p h i l g u e.  On the one hand, I think the Biblical Counseling Movement has great potential and certainly beats compromised approaches to counseling that do not take the Christian Worldview seriously enough.  On the other hand, I also think that many who associate themselves with the BCM are plagued with a spirit of anti-science, and that sometimes those who are not a part of their movement interpret and apply the Bible in a way that is more biblically informed and scientifically aware.  Although not associated closely with BCM or the integrationist approach, Eric Johnson has presented by far the most balanced and sophisticated approach that anchors itself in a biblical worldview without bashing science and psychology.  I have learned, however, after reading more literature from the BCM, that not everybody thinks as dogmatically as Jay Adams (who endorses very negative and unfair critiques of Eric Johnson’s work).  Case in point: David Powlison and Paul David Tripp.  Although closely associated with the Biblical Counseling Movement, these authors are much more helpful in their application of biblical truth and much less polemic in their tone.  Below is a book review of David Powlison’s book Seeing With New Eyes.  I offer praise as well as critique.    

Powlison, David.  Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture.  Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2003.  274 pp.  $10.49.

Seeing with New Eyes

 

Positive Summary

One of Powlison’s greatest advantages in his approach to biblical counseling is his desire to be somewhat systematic and comprehensive as opposed to merely pragmatic (3).  This project includes presuppositional candor and consistency.  He rightly perceives all counseling models as virtual pastoral care that ultimately seeks to diagnose and cure (3).  Because of this paradigmatic sensitivity and cultural familiarity, our author cleverly understands that although secular counseling models may have great insights into human nature and provide half decent advice, ultimately, because they fail to put God in the equation at all (much less at the center) they are paradigmatically hostile to the Christian worldview (4).  Such epistemic alertness has been the strength of the biblical counseling movement and is the foundational insight of this book. 

More important than systematic attempts to understand accurately is the author’s more ultimate goal of feeling appropriately.  Powlison is jealous not to sound “overly cognitive,” but emphasizes that the end goal is to “feel God’s feelings, love God’s loves, hate God’s hates, desire God’s desires” (10).  It is made very clear that our author’s rigorous method for dealing with the concepts of counseling is rigorous only because “seeing clearly, we can love well” (12).  The principle of getting “personal” in the application of biblical truth is part of the very fabric of every chapter (11, 37). 

Powlison’s motivational theory influences how he addresses every problem in counseling scenarios.  This applies not only to his belief that “we can be fundamentally rewired” but also his supreme insight into the biblical picture of human nature (147).  We all worship something because God designed us for worship; thus, every ethical problem is rooted somehow in our failure to have God-centered desires (147, 149).  The author also operates under the assumption that desires for good things such as family, friends and human love become sinful snares of idolatry when they are not subordinate to our desire to please God (151).        

 

Negative Critique

Our author has a “Christifying” modus operandi hermeneutical scheme worth noting, which scheme I am inclined to be skeptical about (26, 28).  He believes that the New Testament “alters” the Old Testament for pragmatic purposes (23, 25).  Paul uses the Old Testament pragmatically, not exegetically.  Even passages which do not originally have messianic overtones should now be understood primarily in terms of what they say about Christ (23-24).  I am skeptical concerning this hermeneutical approach because it seems to violate the theory of authorial intent, and so far, I have not seen a more comprehensive and sophisticated theory of inspiration than the Chicago Statement which works through the implications of authorial intent for the doctrine of inspiration.  I am afraid that Powlison, as something of a neo-Adams, has not developed a robust and clear hermeneutic for the BCM that does justice to the issues that inevitably arise in a uniquely Christian discipline of practical theology.  If Scripture is the foundation for counseling, consistency in hermeneutical precision is indispensible, yet Powlison’s theory of hermeneutics seems to betray the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy at the point of authorial intent.

Another question Powlison’s admonitions raise is this: “Is the style of Scripture inspired as well as the meaning which the style embodies?”  This question should be raised since Powlison asserts that not only “may” we communicate biblical truth in the way Paul did, but we “must do so” (29).  I would agree that we might take some cues from some of the various styles of communication found in the biblical authors, but Powlison seems to define fidelity to the meaning of the biblical text with fidelity the genre or style of the biblical authors.  Although Powlison attempts to state his understanding more modestly in his disclaiming section, his more modest summary of the argument does not live up to the bold claims which precede it (30). 

Furthermore, a similar mistake seems to be made when Powlison admonishes his readers to reinterpret their experiences in biblical categories.  In context, he really has in mind that we should think and speak of the human experience primarily in biblical language (152), yet he seems to violate his own principle by calling desires for things which are inherently good “lusts” (151).  We might ask, “When Paul uses the phrase ‘lusts of the flesh,’ does he have in mind things which are inherently good?”  Perhaps such a case could be made, but Powlison makes no such case.  Rather, he seems to be unconsciously taking the liberty to bend the language of the biblical text to better communicate a mature biblical category of idolatry (150).  Does fidelity to biblical meaning and truth necessarily entail using the exact biblical language, or is the meaning capable of being spoken in different words than those in our English Bible translations?  Since Powlison’s call to think in biblical categories winds up including the use of biblical language, although inconsistently, he seems confused about the nature of this distinction, which is an important one for defining “fidelity” to the Christian worldview.  How one understands the answer to these questions will have a major effect on whether one’s counseling model seeks to synthesize the insights of secular sciences with the lenses of biblical categories of meaning or reject these insights as “unbiblical” just because they do not go by the biblical labels.

 

Conclusion                       

I was challenged to appreciate the BCM more through reading Powlison’s views.  His views are more mature than those of Jay Adams.  Therefore, my sympathy with the movement has grown as a result of reading this book.  Although, in the footsteps of Adams, Powlison multiplies false dichotomy upon false dichotomy, his false dichotomies are less frequent and less dramatic.  Moreover, they are attended with a deeper level of insight that is more faithful to the biblical teachings than Adams’ analysis.                   

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